copyright 2009, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 51, spring 2009

Surprised by Cylons

review by David Greven

Cylons in America: Critical Studies in Battlestar Galactica, ed. Tiffany Potter and C.W. Marshall. New York: Continuum International, 2008. 295 pg.  $18.68

Battlestar Galactica (BSG), the Sci-Fi Channel series currently airing the second half of its fourth and final season, is a brilliant, maddening, quirky, exasperating, enigmatic, dubious series. A re-imagining of a silly but oddly beloved ABC television series of the 1970s, the new BSG takes the pre-existing mythology to daringly unusual places. Human beings of the future or the distant past created robots, the Cylons, to serve them. The Cylons rose up and made war against their creators, decimating nearly the entire human population in the war that commences the new series' narrative.

Religious fervor is one of its surprising innovations. Polytheistic, the humans worship the gods of the Ancient Greeks. In contrast, the Cylons are monotheistic, worshipping the “one true God”; their campaign against the humans is a form of jihad. Fascinatingly, the Cylons of this series have “evolved” from the clanking, immense red-beam-eyed metal robots of the original series into lushly fleshy human-looking beings. These human-like Cylons, “skin jobs” as the Colonial (human) Fleet call them, provide the most fascinating aspects of the current BSG. In their uncanny resemblance to human beings and mysterious passions, these Cylons excite the science-fiction imagination, taking the genre to exciting new places. If only the human beings were half as interesting.

I am aware of the immense cult following the series has generated, and I am in awe of many of its achievements. It’s well-acted and often dazzlingly well-written, with one daringly imaginative new concept and plot twist after another. But for all its brilliance, BSG also seems to me a highly suspect series. And for all the hoopla, BSG’s success is, at best, a limited one, given that has lasted for precisely as many seasons as the last, disastrous Star Trek series, Enterprise. The interest sparked by the series has derived as much from timing as it does from the series’ own strengths. Emerging in the wake of September 11th, the series reflects a new sci-fi grittiness that is as determined by the changed political and social landscape of the post-9/11 era as it is by innovative approaches. Precisely what garners the series so much praise — its engagement with current hot-button moral issues such as terrorism and abortion and its ideological “complexity” — is also what makes it a difficult series towards which to maintain a position. The series goes through so many permutations of its premise and of its own moral sensibility that after a time we wonder what, if anything, it’s ultimately trying to say.

Luckily, we have a lively new collection of readings as a guide to this maddeningly enigmatic series. Cylons in America: Critical Readings of Battlestar Galactica, edited by Tiffany Potter and C.W. Marshall (Continuum, 2008), offers an intelligent and diverse array of interpretations. While some of the essays are disappointingly lackluster, several of them are first-rate, and on the whole the collection engages and impresses with the acuity of its insights. The essays are divided into three sections:

“Television isn’t supposed to make us think like this,” the editors write of BSG’s apparently bold vision (5). “BSG forces us to rethink what we knew” (8). The editors position BSG as a series that goes places where no other ventures to. While the series indubitably innovates the sci-fi genre, it is also part of a wave of revisionist, genre-bending, genre-splicing other series on television. It is also part of a massive re-imagining of the potentialities of the television medium, which has undergone an aesthetic make-over in the past decade, which Suzanne Scott’s essay “Authorized Resistance: Is Fan Production Frakked?” touches upon. The extent to which BSG should be taken as something truly “new” is, I believe, an open question.

Potter and Marshall establish that the innovative nature of this science-fiction work stems from executive producer Ronald D. Moore’s own mandate to reinvent the genre. They quote him as saying that

“a new approach is required. That approach is to introduce realism into what has heretofore been an aggressively unrealistic genre.”

BSG, in Moore’s phrase, is “Naturalistic Science Fiction” (5). This nod to one of the major genres to emerge in the literary realism of the latter nineteenth-century is intriguing. Naturalism eschews any sense of individual self-determination or free will, taking a deterministic, scientific view of human nature. In one of naturalism's exemplary texts — Frank Norris’s McTeague (1899) later made into the film masterpiece Greed (1924) — a young woman from a poor immigrant family wins a cash prize. The prize destroys her relationship with her big, lumbering, mentally impoverished, dentist husband, the titular McTeague, as it drives her to greater levels of self-imposed deprivation. We watch as the gears of fate relentlessly spin and these lives are inexorably destroyed by “good luck.” In similar fashion, we watch the humans of BSG suffer intensifying levels of pain for their hubris after they have made the fatal error of reaching a level of culture that is too technologically sophisticated.

As Potter and Marshall argue, the show succeeds by disrupting “known modes” and fragmenting “extant systems”; it's a “generic fracturing” that achieves a “level of social commentary that cannot be achieved anywhere else on modern television,” one that refuses any kind of “Star Trek utopian imagining of power well held” (5). Significantly, Moore worked on Star Trek for many years, and with its violently apocalyptic scenarios and endlessly maintained levels of paranoia, BSG could certainly be called the anti-Trek. As the editors point out, BSG has connections to Virgil’s The Aeneid and to The Book of Mormon, “which describes how the prophet Lehi took part of the tribe of Joseph to precontact America; this is rewritten as BSG’s Thirteenth Tribe” (7), precedents that also existed in the original series but are greatly expanded upon in the new one.

Brian L. Ott’s argues in his essay, “Reframing Fear: Equipment for Living in a Post-9/11 World,” that whereas “the Cylons in the original series represented our social fears about technology, the Cylons in the new BSG represent our social fears about cultural difference” (16). Ott establishes the show's allegorical impact in the context of our current “War on Terror, ” especially in terms of the series’ representation of the Cylons as the non-human Other: “if one does not see an enemy as human, then one does not feel compelled to treat ‘it’ humanely” (17).  Ott details the repeated scenes of Cylons being tortured on the series, as well as the human references to them as “machines,” “toasters,” and “skin jobs.”

“In addition to degrading the Cylons, such language homogenizes them, reinforcing the prevailing perception that they are all the same and can thus be treated as one nameless, faceless enemy” (17).

Ott points out that the most salient issue is

“not what Cylons are, but what they represent on the show. …. In simultaneously humanizing and dehumanizing the Cylon prisoners, BSG frames torture in ambivalent terms. …. The ambivalent frame encourages reflexivity — an awareness of our complicity and cooperation in war” (19).

Working through the framework of the philosopher of rhetoric Kenneth Burke, Ott praises the series for its “scathing critique of the Bush administration and its foreign policy” (22) and for not offering “a singular position on political dissent,” which encourages “viewers to judge for themselves” (24).

Erika Johnson-Lewis’s essay, “Torture, Terrorism, and Other Aspects of Human Nature,” picks up where Ott’s essay leaves off. “BSG complicates easy or obvious answers to the question of what it means to be human” (28); “BSG usually refrains from moralizing” (32). Bringing in the work of theorists such as Elaine Scarry, Judith Butler, and Giorgio Agamben, Johnson-Lewis examines the series’ representation of what Agamben terms “bare life (homo sacer), or life abandoned by human and divine law” (33).

"In blurring the boundaries between human and inhuman, between barbarism and civilization, and by exposing that anyone might find himself in the no-man’s-land of the exception, stripped to bare life, BSG asks us to resist the Manichean logic of 'with us or against us,' when its only possible outcome is not only dehumanization of the other, but the dehumanization of ourselves" (38).

Along related lines, Carl Silvio and Elizabeth Johnston, in their essay, “Alienation and the Limits of the Utopian Impusle,” raise the Marxist question of alienated labor. They ask about the series,

“Should we read BSG as an ideological critique that seeks to call attention to the inherent contradiction between our experience of the alienation inherent in the wage relation and our faith in the supposed benefits of a market economy for human society?” (43).

Though critical of the series' “lack of overt ideological critique,” the authors finally conclude that

“ [BSG] stands as such a fascinating and complex work of art precisely because it resists being reduced to simplistic dichotomy. In making this assertion, we intend more than a facile affirmation of the value of artistic ambiguity, and instead suggest that this ambiguity may in fact lend itself to more effective ideological critique” (50).

BSG invites us to identify with and invest ourselves in competing and contradictory attitudes toward its utopian themes” (51).

These three thoughtful and intellectually wide-ranging essays set the tone for the essay collection and for its general view of the show as being admirable in its refusal to palliate its audience and in its “complexity.” I will return to this thematic of complexity below.

Rikk Mulligan offers a reading of some significant second season episodes, “Pegasus” and “Resurrection Ship,” which feature Admiral Cain. As played by Michelle Forbes, Cain is an unflinchingly tough leader of the Pegasus, another Battlestar that managed to survive the Cylon attacks. Mulligan’s essay is the first in the reader with which I strongly disagree. Although it raises an important issue, the new series’ re-gendering of several male characters from the old one, this essay largely dispenses with gender critique in favor of investigating the ethics of command. This is especially unfortunate given the crucial role gender plays in the episodes with Admiral Cain. It strikes me as no coincidence at all that the most unrepentantly villainous character on the BSG-reboot is a woman. To my mind, the most troubling aspect of the series is its bizarre treatment of its female characters.

Case in point: when President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) negotiates with the Cylon Leoben (Callum Keith Rennie), who has threatened the Galactica with a bomb, she initially speaks the language of conciliation. However, as soon as she gets the information that she needs, she commands, “Throw him out the air-lock.” The series seems to be providing a pointed critique of assuming that a female leader will have a nurturing maternal quality. But when I see a female military commander depicted as not only far more violent than her male counterparts but emotionally unstable as well, like Admiral Cain, I begin to wonder if the series itself has issues with women in power. Add to that the fact that the series regularly provides a reverential treatment for its male in command, Commander William Adama (Edward James Olmos). Called the Old Man, Adama, as Olmos plays him, is a reassuringly paternalistic, tough old bird, lending the series a gravitas and a stability that derives from traditional gender roles.

Mulligan writes,

“Cain’s character is not an indictment of women in military command, but is instead a criticism of leaders who overstep their bounds, abuse their power, and lose their perspective” (53).

Mulligan further argues that “the world of Galactica is not ours; it is one of science fiction where gender does not inhibit women in military service” (57). I'm not so sure. BSG, as most of the writers of this reader point out, is our world, a show made very much with the current political contexts in mind. In an era in which a woman ran for U.S. President with a very strong chance of securing the nomination and another woman ran for Vice President, BSG’s portraits of women in power are pointedly topical. Cain isn’t just tough; she’s close to homicidal. Cain played a decisive role in the Pegasus treatment of the Cylon Gina, who was repeatedly beaten and raped. Such actions are one of the clearest indications of her amorality and her anti-woman stance. That she has no compassion whatsoever for a fellow female, even a female Cylon, seems to attest to her adoption of a masculinized sensibility. The hard, unyielding Cain is a cartoon of the phallic woman, yet what is even scarier about scripting her this way is that her character principally serves as a negative contrast to Adama’s benevolently patriarchal rule.

The executioner Roslin and the phallic Cain are joined by the character of Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) in being female characters who aspire to a masculinist ideal. Discussing the latter character, Carla Kungl, in her essay, “Long Live Stardoe! Can a Female Starbuck Survive?,” does a good job of documenting the baroque misogyny that greeted Starbuck's gendered make-over of this character, which was played by Dirk Benedict in the original, Katee Sackhoff in the new. But something Kungl does not address is the absurdity of fan hostility to Sackhoff’s female Starbuck precisely because she embodies such a stereotypical masculinity. Aggressive, foul-mouthed, hard-liquor-swilling, and swaggering, this Starbuck is a roughhousing rowdy with little “feminine” charm. This character should be exhilarating, but excruciating would be a better description. What makes the gender-bending new Starbuck — who spars with male characters in the boxing ring and is the Fleet’s best pilot — more bruising than bracing as a character is her reliable penchant for brutality.

For example, in Season Three, when bridge officer Felix Gaeta (Alessandro Juliani) is being hounded for his apparent betrayal of his fellow humans on the Cylon-occupied New Caprica, Starbuck is amongst the most virulent of the secret society clamoring for his death. In a scene that eerily matches the one in which Roslin transforms from compassionate to cruel, Starbuck sits with ostracized Felix, appearing to offer him much-needed support, only to reveal that the animosity she feels towards him runs frighteningly deep. Starbuck is an exemplary instance of what has been called the female chauvinist pig of contemporary times. The marvellously dynamic Sackhoff gives her Starbuck a poignant sense of insecurity but cannot, in my view, redeem this frustrating character.

The series' human characters are beset with limitations that reveal the show’s failure of vision and its underlying conservatism. It’s with the Cylon characters that the show truly approaches the level of daring sci-fi poetry. In one of the best essays in the collection, “Uncanny Cylons: Resurrection and Bodies of Horror,” Alison Peirse convincingly argues for the series’ brilliant innovation upon Freud’s theories of the uncanny. In a stunning reading of both Freud and of the series, especially its uncanny human/non-human Cylons, Peirse argues,

“[BSG] offers a new televisual rendering of the uncanny, transforming traditional notions of the uncanny… [presenting] endless doubles  with the ability to regenerate through downloading. The televisual uncanny occurs initially through the presentation of the double, but it can be argued that then the real horror takes place when the double recognizes itself and does not fear replication, for, as noted by Poe and Freud, the presentation of the double is often an uncanny sign of imminent death” (127).

Peirse finds that BSG’s “complex televisual rendering of the uncanny and horrific body offers a far more stimulating and intellectual account of the ontology of horror and the uncanny than the unrestrained recent cinematic releases” in the torture porn category (129).

Christopher Deis explores themes of race in his essay, “Erasing Difference: The Cylons as Racial Other.” In Deis’ view, black male characters are provocatively represented, erased, and depicted in stereotypical fashion, all at once. By displacing race-based anxieties onto the Cylon Other, the series misses an important chance to explicitly explore “human nature and human society in a time of crisis” (167). Indeed, in agreement with Deis, I find it fascinating the way the series’ oddly retrogressive gender portrayals intersect with race.

In this regard, “Sharon” (Grace Park), an Asian-American Cylon (model number8) with many distinct versions of her character, strikes me as an especially troublesome character. As numerous male characters fight over this Cylon line, Sharon is presented as docile, conformist, and loyal, on the one hand, and as hypocritical and treacherous, on the other. In her relations with numerous male characters, the Sharon-model subtly calls to mind images of the Asian seductress, as alluring as she is duplicitous. In an appealing but also frustrating essay, “‘To Be a Person’: Sharon Agathon and the Social Expression of Individuality,” Robert W. Moore offers a reading from a Kierkegaardian perspective of the Sharon character, who works against her Cylon brethren and for the humans (she is married to a human). “The goal of life for anyone, in Kierkegaard’s view, is to become an existing individual before God,” Moore observes (108). “Cylon culture can be viewed as an allegory of the modern immersion of the individual in mass society” (108). As evidence that he is not offering a heterosexist reading of the Sharon character, one that would argue that “woman is incomplete without the love of a man,” Moore claims that

“the social world of BSG precludes such a reading. BSG is set in a nonpatriarchal world. On gender issues the show is utopian, despite its overall dystopian tone” (110).

As I have been suggesting, the show’s gender politics are actually anything but utopian; they depend on traditional gender conventions and also betray considerable anxiety when female characters occupy traditionally male roles. Despite his claims to the contrary, Moore’s reading of Sharon perpetuates gender stereotypes. It’s not simply that Sharon can nimbly negotiate being an officer as well as a wife and mother. It’s that her very claim to a human status is wholly dependent upon her fulfillment of normative, non-threatening marital and maternal roles. When she kills a fellow Cylon, the reason is because Sharon fears that her daughter, Hera (a human-Cylon hybrid), is being threatened. Overall, Moore’s essay evinces the pitfalls of philosophical criticism. Philosophical treatments of film, increasingly prevalent in academe and scholarly trade publications,  too often eschew urgent real-world concerns such as gender, sexuality, class, and race to focus instead on abstractions of such concepts as the “the Good Life,” as Moore does here. His fine, nuanced discussion of philosophers like Kierkegaard and Rousseau cede to a bland account of Sharon’s conformist human socialization, the disturbing implications of which appear to be lost on Moore.

Along similar philosophical lines, the final essay in the collection, “All This Has Happened Before: Repetition, Reimagination, and Eternal Return,” by Jim Casey reads the increasingly central theme of repetition from the standpoint of Nietzsche’s concept of eternal return, quoting from the nineteenth-century German philosopher’s The Gay Science: “This life as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again” (242). Casey sees the idea of eternal return as developed on the series since it “offers the possibility of affirmation.” Nietzsche’s ideas, Casey argues, gesture towards redemption by allowing us to transcend both the cult of individuality and “historical repression” (248). Casey specifically cites Starbuck’s redemptive return from death in Season Three, as well as the theme of Cylon resurrection. He also positively offers Adrian Lyne’s dreadful, pretentious horror-masquerading-as-spiritual-uplift film Jacob’s Ladder (1990) as a similarly redemptive narrative towards which the revamped BSG series gestures.

I would argue that the theme of religiosity in BSG is disturbing, in much the same way as it was on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, in which Ronald Moore also had a large creative role. Themes of spirituality and religion are of deep value, and popular culture texts have every right to explore these issues. Yet both DS9 and BSG use religion aggressively as a way of settling the pointedly unsettling questions they raise about identity, military power, collectivity, and human nature. On both shows spirituality functions as an antidote to otherwise ardent cynicism. The shows' rigorous decentering of established narrative modes and previously positively held institutions — the Federation on DS9, the human Fleet in BSG — is compensated for by the religious ardor that becomes increasingly crucial to each series. This is a much larger point than my review can encompass, but I would treat with much greater suspicion than Casey does BSG's religious themes, particularly the heavy-handed, gratuitously ominous themes of repetition, which the latter half of Season Four seems to foreground.

Overall, the collection, stimulating though it is, suffers from several of the same limitations of this provocative but also disturbingly retrogressive series. Few of the essays, to my mind, go nearly far enough in interrogating the show’s conservatism, especially in terms of gender roles, though Chris Dzialo, in his essay, “When Balance Goes Bad: How Battlestar Galactica Says Everything and Nothing,” makes an attempt to do so. All of the series’ numerous troubling, chilling dimensions can ultimately be accounted for by the belief in the series’ “complexity,” which would appear to balance out its inconsistencies and alleviate its ideological tensions, tensions which actually may not really be tensions so much as they are indications of a preponderantly reactionary sensibility. In my view, BSG, though a better, more daring, and more carefully conceived series, bears a great resemblance to the last, failed Trek series, Enterprise (which I have written on for Jump Cut). Unlike Enterprise, BSG does seem critical of the last decade’s Presidential administration’s stances in the United States. However, like Enterprise, it has traded in the idealism of its preexisting mythos for gritty, hard-hitting complexity — for an unvarnished, more mature, more brutish vision.

In this manner, shows like BSG, Enterprise, The Sopranos, Deadwood, and 24, among others, can be called a new genre, the New Naturalism, one marked by a kind of violent ambivalence. In the New Naturalism, no guiding moral tone is taken about dubious characters whose actions grow increasingly suspect. Without a guiding moral tone — which represents, in addition to a potential naiveté or sentimentalism, a courageous decision to put one’s values out there — the series can maintain a detached, neo-Naturalistic outlook on its characters. But as the New Naturalism shows evince, this detachment can be duplicitous and serve as a cover for a highly cynical desire to offer an unremittingly pessimistic social view. Much more troublingly, it can be a deeply hypocritical stance, one that purports to be objective but actually is much more idiosyncratically and commercially driven. These days, despair sells. Watching any number of reality series or fictional ones in the New Naturalism vein, we see people and scripted characters writhe in torment and humiliation. We see human nature at its most “raw,” its most “willful,” in its most “natural” state. This is no less a construction and a fantasy than Star Trek’s prevailing utopian future of peaceful, cooperative humanity. It’s just the cynical and no less adamantly maintained alternative to utopian optimism.

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